The German Girl, Armando Lucas Correa

correaThe first few chapters of Correa’s historical faction didn’t excite me and I still not entirely sure why. I found myself struggling with the narrative, with the flow, with the general style. It was odd. Correa’s book presents such a vital insight into a period of world and Jewish history which intrigues me. I have never read a book about this period that I didn’t find fascinating on some level; indeed, except for ‘The Kindly Ones’, I have never left a book about this era unread. (And I have hopes that I will eventually finish ‘The Kindly Ones’!)

I loved the way Correa had set up his narrative, the tale of two girls separated by years and by continents but unwittingly connected by history and family. I loved the juxtaposition between their contexts and how their voices twisted through this novel at some points filled with longing and at others with pain. On so many levels I could see the value of Correa’s work and appreciate it, and so it was that I persisted with reading it and how truly glad I am that I did.

Armando Lucas Correa has told a magnificent and bold story which provides an infinitely valuable insight into the history of refugees both in the context of the Holocaust and in modern terms. Correa’s tale of Leo and Hannah is one of the most beautiful, unrealised love stories that I think I have ever read. In its simplicity, it captured all the magic and essence and possibility of young love and the tragedy of its outcome speaks to the painful reality of many refugee stories.

There is much to herald about this book. But, instead of ruining the pleasure of your reading, I will point out only that what has stayed with me long after I finished the final page is the list of the people that Correa includes at the novel’s end. People who boarded the St. Louis with hopes for survival and a better life, few of whom survived. The simple reality of this story makes it memorable far beyond the voices of its characters.

Courtesy of Shalom:Sydney Jewish Writers Festival and Simon & Schuster, you can enjoy hearing Correa In Conversation at Double Bay Library on February 28th at 10.30am. Tickets are essential so book now before the event is sold out.

 

Far To Go, Alison Pick

download-1There was something in Pick’s writing that made this a very tender book, despite the context of the Holocaust and War in Europe. There was a softness in spaces between the hard  realities of life on the outside, perhaps the ‘real’ world. I fell into this book, like one falls into soft linen puffed up with feathers and as I sunk into the prose I truly felt embraced by these characters and their journeys.

 

I remember a dim street, late fall, and my mother at the end of it, a kerchief knotted under her chin. She was looking back at me already then, as though across a great gulf of time. I tried to move towards her but the street was so long, and there were people blocking my path. When I caught another glimpse, she had taken off her scarf. It was crumpled in a ball in her hand, which she hep against her chest. A bit of wind played with the hair around her face. She held my gaze – there was something she was telling me, something she needed me to know. The whole history of our family was contained in that look. Then she turned a corner and was gone.

There were so many memorable passages in this novel which I think is testimony to Pick’s intentions in this writing:

Intellectually, I wanted people to understand that evil is slow and creeping, that political and social pressure can cause even everyday people to act reprehensibly, and that nobody is immune. I hope the book causes readers to reflect on what they would do in the characters’ situation. From an emotional perspective, I wanted the readers to be caught up in the Bauers’ story, and to really feel the pain and terror of what faced them.

What is interesting about Pick’s narrative structure is that she utilises the voice of a researcher to slowly expose this story. In this instance, the narrator herself, Anneliese, is as interesting as the characters. She is anti-social, a perfectionist, intrigued by the letters that she has uncovered and determined to find the story that they are hiding. Her journey toward finding the truth helps readers comprehend the notion that the past shapes our identities, that “(m)emory bleeds out, or gets covered in snow” and that we are tasked with remembering on behalf of those who no longer can.

I found Pick’s approach to the genre of Holocaust fiction refreshing, although at times justifiably haunting. With beautiful simplicity she has danced around some of the most harrowing decisions that faced those living through the Holocaust – parents, children, carers, businessmen, lovers. For doing this without sounding judgemental, Pick deserves recognition and acclaim.

We can never know what tomorrow holds, and at times we cannot understand from where the past comes. Our task is to live each day as though it is a gift.

The train of memory sleeps on its tracks. At night, in the station, the shadows gather around it, reaching out to touch its cool black sides. The train stretches back, far out of eyesight. Where it comes from is anyone’s guess.

 

The Toymaker, Liam Pieper

9780143784623It was hard to review this book which is remarkable because it really wasn’t a difficult book to read. On the contrary, I mostly found it captivating and I was, in fact, disappointed when it finished. But it is hard to review because I feel as though in this writing Liam Pieper set himself a massive task: to write a book of fiction with the Holocaust as the backdrop rather than lurking in the foreground; a book which doesn’t have a Jew as its protagonist. And, while I enjoyed the book and found the character intriguing, I am not entirely certain that Pieper did justice to this mammoth task.

I was hooked from the opening lines:

‘Let me tell you a story about my grandfather.’ Adam leaned into the sentence, taking care with the syllables, throwing emphasis on the ‘my’, weight on the ‘grandfather’. He loved saying it; he loved to boom it out like he was the invisible, omniscient voice at the start of a movie trailer.

Not only did Pieper grab me with this opening, he sunk in his claws on page two with a wonderfully uncomfortable juxtaposition between Adam’s reverence for his grandfather and his lascivious sexual encounter with a minor. The early narrative structure was fascinating. I was desperate to know more about Adam, about his wife Tess and of course, about Grandpa – this lurking character who is mostly voiceless yet such a major force in the novel and so central to the secrets and lies that are so delicately buried.

While I was entranced by the characters, I felt as though Pieper stopped himself short from properly fleshing them out. Adam was suitably shallow, adept at repeating his grandfather’s story and  revelling in the heroism of his grandfather’s survival. But there are elements of Adam’s responses to crises that seem too unrealistic – he doesn’t seem to ‘feel’ … and Tess, his wife, in so many ways she is more dynamically explored than Adam, but she too conveniently wraps things up at the novel’s end and readers are left with only hints of deeper and more disconcerting issues like Kade, their son’s, slow development.

Pieper smoothly explores some complex themes – family, relationships, business and ethics; but the very essence of this novel, the deep, dark secret that Arkady buries, which presents such a challenging philosophical quandary, doesn’t pack enough of a punch for me. I won’t spoil the reading for you, but I was hoping that Pieper would make more of this profound and thought-provoking undercurrent.

Perhaps I am too judgemental … or perhaps I have read too much Holocaust related fiction … but while I see the merits of Pieper’s telling, I also think there was great potential for this to be one of those truly magnificent novels that is comfortable going places which other novels are never brave enough to tread.

 

The Women’s Pages, Debra Adelaide

9781743535981When I read Debra Adelaide’s novel, The Household Guide To Dying, I loved it so much that I emailed Adelaide to thank her for writing it. The Household Guide To Dying was a stellar novel in my mind it set Adelaide up to be one of the great Australian women’s voices of our era.

The Women’s Pages was strangely more ambitious than The Household Guide To Dying which deals with Delia Bennet’s foray into her own death. Bennet writes household guides to all sorts of things so when she discovers that she is indeed dying, she decides to write a guide to doing so. The book is so full that it’s hard to describe – I’ll settle with Nicola Walker’s description from the Sydney Morning Herald: “Bennet may have one foot in the grave but Debra Adelaide has created one of the most irrepressible and beguiling heroines to emerge in Australian fiction since Sybylla Melvyn made her appearance in My Brilliant Career.”

The Women’s Pages doesn’t have the same thematic weight of The Household Guide to Dying, but it makes up for this with the complexity of its structure which clearly heralds to readers that Adelaide is a writer of note. In this novel she weaves together a beautiful story with a stunning insight into a writer’s inability to escape the desire to tell a story. She combines these two elements through Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. I can hardly do the novel justice with this description. At times I wasn’t entirely certain that Adelaide had pulled off this massive feat, but overwhelmingly there was a greatness tugging at my reader’s senses and it was not difficult to drown in the lives of two fascinating protagonists who so clearly represented women at different times in Australian history.

There is no doubt that Debra Adelaide has a wonderful sensitivity when it comes to writing. There are emotions that hover beneath her words that are almost tangible and it is this that makes reading her work so pleasurable.

 

 

The Widow, Fiona Barton

downloadI’m a huge Lisa Gardener fan and when I spotted this book, The Widow, on the Red Hot Reads shelf at the library, sporting Gardner’s seal of approval – “the ultimate psychological thriller” – I figured it was a good bet.

I wasn’t entirely disappointed. There were certainly captivating elements of this thriller. The protagonist, Jean Taylor, was mostly convincing and seemed complex enough. The plot was well structured and the supporting characters were interesting. But somehow, there was not enough friction in this book for me or perhaps it was too slow or predictable … I’m not entirely sure. I enjoyed reading it but it didn’t leave me quivering or wanting more.

Nine Days, Toni Jordan

20644317I was sure that I had read this book – and indeed, I have.  And it didn’t matter one bit. I loved it. Every part of it. Stark, beautiful, tender and such an immaculate glimpse into life in Australia both today and during the war.

I’m not generally a fan of Australian fiction, but Toni Jordan is the exception. She’s an author whose work never fails to impress and is always diverse and filled with literary surprises of the best kind.

I won’t review it again. I’ll just say that Toni Jordan is a star and I can’t wait to read her latest book – Our Tiny, Useless Hearts.

A Little Life, Hanaya Yanagihara

01bookyanagihara-master180 This book broke my heart. It has taken me three attempts to read it – the first two times I had to stop because I simply couldn’t breath for the weight of all the sorrow. But I persisted. And I’m glad for it. The writing is magnificent. Each sentence is like an orchard or a field of wild flowers in bloom with the soft mountain breeze creating an orchestra of movement and the slow echo of a waterfall or spring shifting in the background. I found myself repeatedly falling into the prose, drowning, not just in the sadness, but also in the sheer beauty of Yanagihara’s prose, the tone, the majesty. I highlighted whole pages, emailed them to my friends, read and reread.

There was so much to love that it is hard to know where to start… For me, the thing that I found most intriguing was the fact that this is a story about the bond of male friendships. It’s rare to read something that so intimately explores not just male characters who are so complex and diverse, but also the ties that bind them. I loved the camaraderie, the at times fraught tension between the individual creative genius and the different connections between these four characters – the jealousies and the love. I loved the honesty. And the lies. And although the sorrow is burdensome, it is also very rich in a way that I have never before encountered.

What also struck me about this book was its driving theme of happiness – What is it? How do we define it? Can we define it?

But what was happiness but an extravagance, an impossible state to maintain, partly because it was so difficult to articulate?

While this thread meanders throughout the novel, it is coupled with the motif of love and friendship and the blurry lines between these two states – “And still, the friendship spooled on and on, a long, swift river that had caught him in its slipstream and was carrying him along, taking him somewhere he couldn’t see.” Yanagihara comes back to this theme repeatedly, exploring friendships not only between these four protagonists but also between them and other characters, and relationships in general – the potential that exists when “both people … recognise the best of what the other person had to offer and had chosen to value it as well.”

Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honoured by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.

There is so much to peel away from this narrative but to do so would be to spoil it for those intending to read it. I will only say that I loved it but I hated it at the same time. Part of me wants to read it again. And again. And again. Another part of me wants to bury the memory of this book forever.

The Fence, Meredith Jaffe

4628453360_335x515“I promise you one thing, young lady. Building a fence is not going to keep the world out and won’t keep your children in. Life’s not that simple.”

I have a thing for fences, ever since a History professor of mine during my undergraduate degree set an essay question about the Arab-Israeli Conflict using Robert Frost’s poem, Mending Wall, which ends so poignantly: “Good fences make good neighbours.” I’ve wondered often about this notion and the concept of personal space and delineation, how fencing something out can sometimes equate to simultaneously fencing yourself in, protection and preservation meets isolation. So it was that this book appealed to me immediately.

Meredith Jaffe has done a marvellous thing in this story. She’s brought two such incredibly diverse characters together in direct opposition to tell her story over the construction of a fence.  This book magnificently describes Australian suburban life, epitomised by Gwen Hill who has lived on Green Valley Avenue since it was first constructed. Her house and garden epitomise everything she loves about the street and the neighbourhood. Here she has grown her family, built friendships, nurtured herself and her husband. And into this warm space comes Francesca Desmarchelliers, Frankie, who is everything that Gwen isn’t. She is city chic and concrete to Gwen’s lush gardens, she is unruly and modern to Gwen’s conservatism and she is desperately trying to save her marriage and her family

What evolves is a wonderful insight into the challenges that neighbours sometimes face, into how we engage each other as people and into the empathy that is required to move successfully through this world.

Jaffe’s novel is a delight! She’ll be speaking on a panel of debut authors with Nathan Besser at the upcoming Sydney Jewish Writers Festival – you won’t want to miss this one!

Man in the Corner, Nathan Besser

BesserI just went on a crazy ride with Nathan Besser in his debut novel, Man in the Corner. Crazy because in this novel Besser has woven together a collection of seemingly random threads to create the kind of fiction that has the mind boggling. I’m not even sure how one describes this genre – it’s kind of a psychological mystery verging on family drama with some crime fiction twists to it. It’s filled with strange twists and some intriguingly scary characters. And the strangest thing is that while reading this twisted tale, you can’t help but feel like its protagonist, poor David, who is apparently stuck in a plot that he can’t seem to escape, victim of a series of crimes which have made him into a criminal.

What appealed to me most about this tale though, was the fact that it was set in Maroubra. I live in Maroubra. The places Besser describes, the streets, the cafes and the vistas, are all places that I know and this made my insight into Besser’s tale even more delightful. I dare say it’s the first Australian fiction that I’ve read and enjoyed in a long, long time.

It is easy to see why Simon Baker loves Besser’s book. It will make an outstanding film. It was a delightfully gripping read, although difficult to review without giving away too much of the plot!

Nathan Besser will be speaking at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival on Sunday August 28th at 4.30pm along with other debut novelists Lexi Landsman and Meredith Jaffe. Don’t miss this exciting opportunity to hear from a new generation of authors!

Saved to Remember, Frank Vajda

It is hard to know what is most awe-inspiring about this book – Vajda’s story of survival or all that he achieved in the years following his liberation. Both narratives are extraordinary.

I read this book as I do most Holocaust memoirs, with a deep breath, stealing myself against what is about to unfold and waiting for the triumph of a magnificent spirit. Vajda’s book fulfilled most of the expectations. It describes his family, the life they lead before the war, their relationships and experiences. It explains in stark detail the war itself, how he survived and most specifically his encounter with Raoul Wallenberg at age 9.

Vajda’s introduction clearly sets out his reasons for writing:

I survived by a series of near misses and coincidences.  Although not being mutilated physically, I became scarred emotionally as a result. Being able to recollect in writing these events and their effect on conditioning my subsequent responses is an opportunity I am grateful for…

… This narrative however is secondary to my prime motive of expressing feelings of sorrow and shame, and, as much as any single person can, trying to prevent the recurrence of circumstances that culminate in racial mass murder.

It is impossible not to be moved by Vajda’s story and by the brave clarity with which he narrates it. However, what impressed me most about Frank Vajda is the brief CV which accompanies his entry on the Booktopia website.

Frank Vajda AM, Officer 1st.cl. Royal Order of Polar Star (Sweden), MD FRCP FRACP, is a consultant neurologist, Professorial Fellow, University of Melbourne, Director of the Australian Pregnancy Register of Antiepileptic Drugs, Past President of Epilepsy Society of Australia, International Ambassador for Epilepsy, Member of the International Pregnancy Register Board, Head of the Free Wallenberg Australian Committee and Founder of Raoul Wallenberg Centre of Clinical Neuropharmacology.

This combined with Vajda’s reference to close friend Jacob Rosenberg whose magnificent poetry is beyond inspiring, led me to further investigate Vajda’s CV which I found online, an impressive 50 page document clearly exposing Vajda as ambitious, dedicated, a gifted physician, and a high achiever. I poured slowly through his CV, marvelling at his contribution to academia and his honours, appointments and long list of qualifications. I was left feeling conflicted for here is a man who has achieved greatness as a neurologist, helped hundreds if not thousands of people through his work and changed the face of neurology through his research and so much of all that he has achieved has come about because of the devastation and tragedy of the Holocaust. So much of who he is seems to come as a direct result of all he lost. How does one reconcile these contradictions? Vajda has done just this by making it his mission to honour those who were lost and to bring recognition and honour to heroes like Raoul Wallenberg who saved so many lives.

In my mind, while Wallenberg is clearly Vajda’s hero, Vajda himself is a hero for telling his story and for bringing so much richness to our world.

Not only should you read Frank’s book because of the light it sheds on this dark period of human history; but you should also make sure that you are present to hear Vajda talk about surviving the Holocaust which he will be doing on a panel at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival on August 28th.